For One Family, Art Is a Way of Life

For some, life imitates art. In the Dobrokhotova-Maikova family, life is art. Natalya, 55, Tatyana, 50, and their mother Lyudmila, 75, are artists and illustrators of countless creations.

But much of what the family once produced was for their own private viewing, or a few select Soviet publications. Now that seems to be changing.

The two daughters are currently working on a job illustrating a Russian-language text for Harvard University Press this month, their first Western commission. In the '60s and '70s, the two illustrated children's popular science books and other pedagogical works in demand by Soviet educators, leaving their more expressive, and personal, creations for home.

Today it is becoming possible to express their true creativity professionally. The private world the family has created at home is still the most absorbing, but "there is less time now", Lyudmila Alexeyevna says. Professional opportunities require tradeoffs.

Despite this current emphasis on business, this family of artists still seems to enjoy most the works they produce for each other and for their home. Mother, daughters, three children and now a granddaughter participate seamlessly in the creative whole. The results are richly decorated journals, miniature castles, embroidered clothing and even a new front door - all collectively created.

The small ground-floor apartment is a world unto itself. One room is filled with handmade dolls: Frodo the Hobbit, with a wrinkled leather face; a blue buffalo whose floppy neck keeps nodding off to sleep; a dragon. A wall is hung with tapestries depicting a fantastical view through arched windows. "You get an idea and you have to try it to see how it will come out", Natalya said.

In the early '80s the whole family created several single editions of Retropol: an Uncensored Journal - their own take-off on the controversial literary almanac Metropol, which in 1979 was submitted by a group of writers as a challenge to the official censor. The satire was only for family consumption.

In a book on embroidery published last year by Molodaya Gvardiya, Natasha, in one of her forays into the professional world, advises would-be seamstresses, "By copying the best examples of the art of the past, you will create a beautiful object and learn something of the old techniques".

It is clear that the family has followed this axiom, re-creating, combining, learning and moving on. The front door is checkered with canvases, some copies of Breughel and other old masters, some original still lives. "We didn't have enough money" to upholster the door with new leather, Tatyana said, so Natalya, Tatyana and daughter Valya tacked their own masterpieces over the old wood.

Wearing one of her own creations, it is obvious that the mother is more than an expert on embroidery. She is wearing a long blue house robe embroidered with flowers and insects in soft iridescent shades, with the kind of detail one finds in medieval tapestries. The bumblebee has delicate veined wings. One can distinguish every yellow tooth on the dandelion petals.

When working together at the long drawing table along one wall, Natalya and Tatyana "pass the work back and forth", Natalya said. One daughter will do the outline for an illustration, while the other will color it in.

Throughout the '60s and '70s, the family says creating their private art was a means of survival. Today "is much more interesting", Tatyana said, with commissions for children's stories and other more imaginative jobs.

But, the family agrees, it has meant one serious drawback. Now it is private projects that are sometimes neglected.